Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Forester's Effective Cycling

John Forester's Effective Cycling is one of those books that all serious (and maybe even not-so-serious) bicyclists should read, but for whatever reason, I never got around to it until recently. God knows, I've read a lot about it over the years, but now that I'm blogging about bikes and bicycling, I figured that I couldn't put it off anymore, so I picked up a lightly used copy of the 6th edition cheaply (the newest edition is the 7th which I believe came out in 2012 -- if there are significant differences in the newest edition, I'd like to know!).

Even though Forester states pretty clearly in the introduction that he doesn't intend his book to be read from cover-to-cover, that's exactly what I did. Instead, his idea is that it be used more as a manual, to be read (and practiced) in manageable chunks, starting with the parts one feels they need to know first, and saving other parts for later when they've picked up more skills. I agree that the book is a lot to take in all at once -- being that Forester sees his book as a comprehensive manual to help cyclists from absolute beginners through seasoned veterans -- a book that one should be able to come back to again and again because we are always able to learn something new.

The book covers a huge range of cycling topics, including bicycle and equipment selection, comprehensive maintenance and repairs, basic riding skills, advanced riding skills (including negotiating traffic), touring, racing, training, and also societal issues (such as bicycle laws and bicycle advocacy). In some ways, Forester's ideas can be somewhat controversial in that he is sometimes at odds not only with government traffic and engineering officials, but also with some bicycle advocacy groups (more on that later).

I do have criticisms of Effective Cycling. The chapters on choosing bicycles and equipment are certainly aimed at novices (why would an experienced cyclist need to read in a book about the difference between a mountain bike and a road bike?) and yet at times those sections are a bit too general to be very helpful, in my opinion, for the intended reader. On the other hand, getting too specific (such as referring to specific brands or models of components -- as he occasionally does) immediately builds in a certain "obsolescence" for any book -- being that those kinds of things are constantly changing. Some such references I encountered were probably "dated" even when the 6th edition was brand new. In any case, I felt that sometimes Forester's descriptions could be more confusing than helpful for a novice -- and unnecessary for a rider with more experience. For example, his written descriptions of different types of brakes and their means of operation would be confusing even for a veteran -- and there are no photos or illustrations to help clarify that point.

Likewise, the sections on maintenance and repair contain some good, solid advice and information -- the kinds of advice that one would only get from a long-time veteran cyclist. However, again Forester's written descriptions can sometimes be a bit confusing, and there aren't enough pictures or illustrations to help if one should get confused. In those aspects, I think someone who really needs a repair manual might be better off with a book more "dedicated" to maintenance and repair only (such as Zinn and the Art of Roadbike Maintenance by Lennard Zinn), as opposed to this where it is merely one "section" of a book that covers many other aspects of cycling. As far as describing repairs, I find the late Sheldon Brown's website to be very useful, often including large, clear photos -- and Brown's explanations I think are generally clearer for bike repair novices (who are probably the most likely to be looking for repair instructions).

Forester's chapters on riding skills -- especially in traffic -- are the real heart of Effective Cycling, and the main reason I wanted to read the book. I've been riding, mostly on the road, mostly with traffic, almost as long as Effective Cycling has been in publication (first published in the mid 70s). Part of me wanted to see if Forester's advice was any different from what I've been doing, and to see if there was anything I should be doing differently. I was mildly surprised to find that most of what Forester recommends for cyclists riding among cars is almost exactly what I'm already doing. Is that because after all these years, through all kinds of trial-and-error, I've just managed to train myself in a way that is consistent with what Forester (and other cycling veterans) have found to work the best? Or have I picked up bits and pieces of Effective Cycling through other sources over the years (such as other cyclists, or through tips published in magazines, etc.?) -- I don't know. Probably a combination. But I think that either way, it is a bit of a testament that most of the advice on negotiating traffic on a bicycle is sound and well-proven.

Many people, even those who have not read this book, may be familiar with at least some of the basic concepts -- sometimes referred to as "vehicular cycling." The idea is that a bicycle is a vehicle, and that cyclists are safest when they act like other vehicles on the road: following the same rules, responsible for the same regulations, asserting the same rights. Forester advocates that cyclists assert themselves with confidence in traffic. "Once you learn how to ride in traffic, you will realize that you are a partner in a well-ordered dance . . . Once you can ride comfortably and efficiently, without worrying about traffic, on a machine you can trust, you are ready to experience the full joys of cycling."

In some cases, Forester's advice is to actually buck the "conventional wisdom." For example, if poorly-written laws, or poorly-designed bicycle lanes would actually lead to a less-safe condition for the cyclist (as Forester frequently contests they do), then the cyclist is far better off to stay in the lane of traffic following the rules or conventions typically followed by drivers. Now I should point out that Forester's book does NOT advocate blowing off signs or traffic signals (and neither do I), although I frequently hear cyclists say they believe they are "safer" in doing that -- they'll attempt to justify their actions by saying that traffic laws are written for cars, and are more dangerous for cyclists to follow. Effective Cycling argues against that. Pretty much the only traffic laws I found Effective Cycling to condemn are the ones that are written to apply to bicycles only, such as those that require riding only on the far right side of the road, or those that force cyclists to stay in "bike lanes." Such laws, Forester argues, are often pushed through legislatures under the guise of "bicycle safety" but are often really an effort to add to the convenience of motorists, are passed without any data to support their claims of safety, and often are in direct contradiction to actual accident and safety studies. Otherwise, apart from a few exceptions, the main point of Effective Cycling is that one is safer to follow the laws much the way they would in a car.

However, one area in which I find myself in (at least some) disagreement is in Forester's almost unwavering opposition to bicycle-specific infrastructure -- whether bike lanes or cycle paths. Forester makes the case (pretty effectively, I'll admit) that bike lanes and the like are actually less safe than riding in the road, using accident data to show, for example, that bike lanes greatly increase cyclists' risks at intersections which is where bicycles are the most vulnerable. In other instances, some (poorly designed) bike lanes reduce visibility of cyclists to motorists, or create confusion for drivers and cyclists alike, leading to serious accidents. His arguments certainly gave me something to think about, and I can't say I totally disagree. On the other hand, there are situations where it still seems to me that bike-specific infrastructure, especially if properly designed by people who actually understand the needs of cyclists, might be favorable.

For instance, my own commute to work averages about 14 miles each way and covers a full range of riding and traffic situations and challenges. My ride starts on the urban streets in the heart of the city, then out to the suburbs with miles of strip-mall shopping centers and fast food joints, then through a freeway interchange with a full array of on-ramps and off-ramps with all the typical traffic merging and diverting. Then there's a full divided highway with cars and tractor trailer trucks flying past at 55 - 60 mph (not a limited-access freeway, which would be illegal to bike on, but it pretty much feels like one). Then comes an unlit, virtually deserted back-country farm path, followed by a narrow, shoulderless rural two-lane highway, again, busy with traffic moving at about 55 mph. For most of my commute, I have no qualms whatsoever about riding with the traffic -- I practice "vehicular cycling," taking the lane when necessary, and asserting my rights with confidence. But on those roads where the difference in speed is so great, with traffic flying past at 55 mph or faster, like the divided highway or the narrow high-speed two-lane road, I would gladly take a bike lane if one were available. Though not cited in Effective Cycling, I have seen studies showing that the greater the difference in the speeds of different vehicles on a road (regardless of vehicle types), the greater the danger that is posed.

Forester bases much of his opposition to bicycle-specific infrastructure on a series of comprehensive accident studies conducted by Kenneth Cross for the NHTSA between 1974 and 1980. Forester notes repeatedly that a lot of the support for bike lanes and the like is about reducing the possibility of a cyclist being struck from behind by an overtaking motorist, but the Cross studies show that type of accident to be a statistically slight possibility compared to the much higher statistical probability that a cyclist would be injured in or around an intersection (a probability that is increased by many bike lane designs). However, those studies were conducted long before the advent and widespread use of cell phones, the use of which while driving very closely mimics the effects of drunk driving. What I'd like to know is if a similarly comprehensive study were conducted today, when perhaps as many as a third of the drivers at any given moment may be either on the phone or texting while driving, would the results be different than they were in the 70s? Given that practically every day I'm on the road (whether in my car or on my bike) I witness cell phone distracted drivers weaving and drifting onto the shoulder of the road, I shudder to imagine the consequences that would be faced by myself or any other cyclist in that position. I don't know if a more current study would show a difference or change the situation -- but I'd like to know more.

Despite my (at least partial) disagreement on the point of bicycle-specific infrastructure, I also understand the point that Forester makes about such efforts and his reasoning behind it. His experience on the subject seems to come in part from studying poorly-designed bicycle infrastructure, from the aforementioned accident studies, and in part from battling numerous legislative efforts to strip cyclists of their legal rights on the roadways. When so many misguided efforts to relegate cyclists to second-class status are pushed forward by non-cyclists in the name of "bicycle safety," it is no surprise that one would likely become highly skeptical of any such effort. But that brings me back to the point about how Forester is sometimes at odds with both the enemies and the advocates of cycling.

Whereas much of today's bicycle advocacy is dedicated to building more bike lanes and other accommodations to encourage more people to ride bikes, Forester is, as already mentioned, stridently opposed to those efforts. In his words, "Bikeways neither make cycling much safer nor reduce the skill required. They probably do the reverse." ( He writes essentially (I'm paraphrasing) that in many ways, bicyclists are their own worst enemies -- riding without the necessary skills and no training, and that most of the accidents that injure or kill them are the result of that lack of training. His belief seems to be that bikeways simply increase that problem, and we don't need more such bicycle riders on the roads, but rather,we need to properly train and educate the riders that are out there in the skills of Effective Cycling

Forester was president of the League of American Wheelmen from 1979 - 1980. However, according to Pedaling Revolution, by Jeff Mapes, he was later ousted "in a power struggle over the organization's direction." Mapes writes, "As usual, the fight revolved around whether the wheelmen would stick strictly to the precepts of vehicular cycling or would support bikeways and other facilities aimed at encouraging more bicycling." Forester himself describes some of the struggles in one of the last chapters of Effective Cycling, but if there is another side to the story (and there always is) that isn't in his book.

I do not know, nor have I spoken with John Forester, so I have no real familiarity with him or his personality -- but his writing style, evident clearly in Effective Cycling, has such a distinct "voice," that a personality definitely comes through -- one that is unflinching and perhaps uncompromising. He dismisses many of today's bicycle advocates as having a "bicycle inferiority complex" or, as Jeff Mapes writes from his meeting with Forester, "anti-car" people. From Pedaling Revolution:

"Indeed, Forester could see no common ground with his opponents. 'The anti-motorists I have dealt with in my life, they are religious frankly about anti-motoring and they will do anything to carry on their cause,' he told me. 'Nasty people!'"

John Forester, from the
American Dream Coalition
Today Forester is, perhaps ironically, a featured speaker for the American Dream Coalition, which is a conservative political action group dedicated to "Defending freedom, mobility, and affordable home ownership" (from the ADC website). The ADC is very much a pro-automobile group, focused on eliminating barriers to suburban sprawl, while fighting against urban development, public transit, and anything that could be seen as putting restrictions on driving. Obviously, his association with the ADC adds to the complexity and controversial nature of the man considered by many to be the father of modern cycling advocacy.

So getting back to the question of cycling advocacy, what is the answer? Is it simply, as Forester seems to believe, that we need better training and education for cyclists? Of course that would be beneficial but where and how would this training happen and who would pay for it? Certainly not our public education system, which is already cut to the bone in funding while over-burdened with more and more mandated testing on the "core" subjects. School districts that are already cutting Art, Music, and Physical Education aren't going to suddenly start teaching kids about bicycle safety. Would bicycle shops offer such training? Some very proactive shops do offer seminars on things like bicycle maintenance and riding skills -- at least in part to distinguish themselves from deep-discounting online retailers -- but how many people actually go (or would go) to such training seminars? Proper training and education for cyclists are very important, but can only be one piece of a multi-part solution to a complex problem.

Another part of the solution, which Effective Cycling doesn't seem consider, is better driver education. Driver education is required for anyone seeking a drivers license (at least for those in their teens), but such programs in the U.S. are pitiful. It is far too easy to get a drivers license in the U.S., and far too hard to lose one. Driver education programs at best make virtually no mention of cycling rights and responsibilities, and those that do often propagate the "second-class" mindset relating to bicycling, or even (in the worst cases) actually instruct students on behaviors that could possibly endanger cyclists. I know for a fact that some Drivers' Ed instructors teach their students that they should honk any time they pass a bicyclist! The result of all this is that many drivers on the road have no idea what to do or how to react when they encounter someone on a bike (regardless of how well-trained the cyclist may be) -- and many are convinced that cyclists have no right to be on the road in the first place. Could driver education programs be required to cover bicyclists' rights and include some training on how to properly share the road with cyclists? Absolutely, and it could be done while adding very little in expense or time for the programs.

Yet another piece of the solution might be to examine some bicycle infrastructure developments that might actually make sense -- designed not by traffic engineers who don't ride, or by those with a motor-vehicle-centered mindset -- but perhaps with close input from cyclists, taking into account the deficiencies noted in some bikeway designs regarding crossing and turning at intersections, and maybe centered more on those routes where the vast difference in speed may create a greater danger for cyclists. Even in Effective Cycling, Forester notes that about the only time he ever felt truly frightened while riding on the road was along a narrow, shoulderless high-speed two-lane rural road, loaded with traffic, probably not unlike the one I mentioned having to negotiate every day on my own work commute. I personally know a number of people I work with who live much closer to work than I do and who would probably bike to work at least occasionally if not for the fact that getting there requires riding on that high-speed, narrow, rural highway. If there were some kind of bikeway along that route, I have no doubt that the number of bicycle commuters would increase, and I don't see that as a bad thing.

To wrap up, readers might wonder if I recommend reading Effective Cycling. Despite whatever criticisms I have mentioned, I do think that anybody who shares the road with cars should definitely read the book -- particularly the sections pertaining to "vehicular cycling." Even though I discovered through reading it that I am already using a lot of the skills Forester advocates, I know I still picked up a few more tips, and overall it will likely give me more confidence as I negotiate traffic. But more importantly, had I read the book years ago, I probably would have saved myself a fair amount of "trial-and-error" which I believe may be how I learned some of those skills I'm using today. Regarding chapters on selecting equipment and others that may be intended for novices -- a person can take them or leave them as they see fit. And even on the points of cycling advocacy -- whether one agrees or disagrees with Forester's uncompromising view, I find it very worthwhile to explore different views, especially when those views are arrived at honestly and are supported in a meaningful way. Those chapters gave me something to think about.


  1. I agree that _Effective Cycling_ is well worth reading. It is one of the most influential books ever written on cycling, largely because of Forester's logical analysis of traffic laws and how cyclists best fit into the traffic mix. I do think the book is a bit much for a beginner, though. Beginning cyclists might wish to start with the very brief _Street Smarts_ by John Allen (available online or as a free booklet distributed by several states DOTs). John Franklin's _Cyclecraft_ is briefer than EC, better illustrated, and concentrates more on traffic techniques. But Forester's book was groundbreaking, and anyone serious about cycling should read at least the traffic cycling portions.

    Forester's writing style is often militant. He does have a low capacity for putting up with foolishness. In person, I've found him to be intelligent and gentlemanly.

    Regarding your narrow 55 mph highway: Perhaps a bike lane might make you feel more comfortable, but I submit that the real benefit would arise from the additional width of asphalt, not from the fact that it had a stripe. I think it's important to make that distinction. In my experience, the difference between a (say) 15' wide lane, vs. a 10' wide lane plus a 5' bike lane, is that the bike lane will have gravel and other road debris in the four rightmost feet! Completely excluding cars removes their "sweeping" action. Personally, I want cars excluded from my path only when I'm actually in it.

    This is not to say I'm against all bike infrastructure. I'm particularly fond of "shortcut" paths that give cyclists access where cars aren't wanted, e.g. from residential neighborhoods to adjacent parks, schools and shopping areas. But I find most bike facilities to be less useful than an equivalent width of ordinary road, which (I believe) should be the real test.

    I would love to see at least minimal cycling education in the schools. Where phys ed still exists, cycling should be the first thing taught, long before dodge ball, jumping jacks or anything else. And I heartily agree on your comments regarding drivers' education. I'd love to see nationwide campaigns to inform motorists and law enforcers that cyclists _do_ have full rights to the road. If that fact were as well known as it is in Europe, riding would be much better.

    Finally, this new, small organization is doing the best cyclist education out there: Most cyclists don't realize they have anything to learn. But taking Cycling Savvy course - or reading Effective Cycling or Cyclecraft - will do more for your cycling enjoyment than any piece of equipment you could ever buy!

    1. I'm really glad you mentioned John Allen's Street Smarts -- for just the traffic portions, it would be worthwhile, and much more concise. Your point about the narrow highway is well taken. Thanks for including the cycling savvy link, too.